Sir William Jones: The Foremost Orientalist

In the 18th century British scholars like Sir William Jones and James Mill came to India to study our culture. These came to be known as orientalists. Out literary treasures impressed them. Some of them rendered valuable service to our country in many ways basically because they adored our culture, admired our aesthetic maturity and were transported by our literary achievement. In the century that followed men like T.B. Macaulay came to India. Macaulay was an Anglicist for he displayed the narrow outlook of cultural superiority. He it was who thought that it was a sacred duty of the colonial rulers to civilise us enable us to appreciate (and ape) British ways and imbibe their culture.

Americans have bitter memories of British Colonialism and have a strong anti-imperialist stance. When one looks at recent American scholarship on orientalists, one is tempted to make a generalisation to this effect. We have a hoary culture. The average Indian is more forgiving for he has more understanding of the realities of the situation than the Western Individualist. What is more, an Indian is grateful for whatever good he receives. This is a matter of national ethos. A conglomerate with no deep roots can hardly visualise and, still less, understand this.

'Orientalist' has no pejorative ring, which the term Anglicist carries. Anglicanism is used as term connoting Colonialism and Imperialism rolled into one. Ideas of hegemony and superiority are not palatable to the democratic idealists. That Sir James was a lover of culture, that he was influenced by great ideas, concepts and the literary excellence of the Orient, particularly of Arabia, Persia and India, is abundantly evident in his work.

A brief look at Jones's scholarly life and work * would give us an idea of his great contribution to letters and cultural understanding of the East. Born a commoner in 1746, he lost his father when he was three. It was his mother who brought him up. 'Read and you will know' was the maxim she gave her little son. A mother, we all know, is not only a kid's first teacher but also the best one too. We remember Boswell telling us how Johnson's mother gave her son a wonderful clue: 'Heaven is a place where all good people went and hell is the one where the bad were sent.'

At four Jones met with an accident which damaged his eyesight and nine broke his thigh. In bed for a whole year he turned the immobility forced on him to good use studying Dryden and Pope. At seven he went to lower school at Harrow where he came to be known as a legend of precocity. During vacations he learnt French, mastered Greek and Latin and pored over Sophocles and Virgil. Dr. Sumner, his tutor at school, who continued to his tutor till Jones was seventeen, described him as an uncommon boy.

At eighteen he went to Oxford and after matriculation he took to classical scholarship and started oriental studies, especially Arabic. Under a Syrian he studies Arabic classics and eventually discovered the relationship between Arabic and Persian. He took pride in the fact that he gave himself the education of a prince with the means of a peasant.

After 1766 Jones's fortunes looked up. He was taken as private tutor to Lord Althrop. He secured Sir Simon Bennet Fellowship too. By 1769 he could complete his Commentaries on Asiatic Poetry though it was published in 1774. King Christian II of Denmark invited him to translate the history of Nadir Shaw from Persian to French. While doing this work, he wrote an essay on Oriental poetry and published it along with thirteen translations of the poet Hafiz in French. More honours were in store for him. Jones became the imperial member of Warsaw. He produced the dictionary of the Persian language. His Grammar of the Persian Language was published in 1771. In 1772 he became a member of the Fellow of Royal Society and in 1774 he was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple.

The literary club founded by Dr. Johnson was the most prestigious in those times. Jones joined it in 1773. While Dr. Johnson was the president. Sir Johan Reynolds, Burke, Gibbon, Sheldon and Burke were members. Jones drew praise from Burke for his translation of legal treaties from Greek. Jones translated seven Arabian poems in The Molakaat, which were inscribed in gold and hung in the temple in Mecca.

In 1783 Jones was sent to India as judge of the Supreme Court in India. The same year a knighthood came his way. Once in India under Warren Hastings Jones's labours took another turn. Warn Hastings encouraged Indological studies. Thanks to the favourable circumstances the Gita attracted Jones. It was in 1784 that a circular letter was sent to London suggesting the formation of Royal Asiatic Society for promoting Oriental studies. Thirty gentlemen under the Chief Justice Sir Robert Chambers signed it. On Warren Hastings declining the offer, Sir William Jones became the president of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Sir William was President for eleven years. His eleven anniversary discourses and contributions to the Asiatic Researches form a bright phase in the history of Indological studies. He was fascinated by Sanskrit and arduously learnt the language in three years. While investigating whether Indians had any plays he chanced to say his hands as poet Kalidasa's Sakuntala in Latin. He rendered it into English prose in 1789. His translation ran into three editions. Later it went into German, French and Italian.

Jones used to go to Krishinagar to learn Sanskrit and spend time with the scholars there. He revelled in discussions with pandits in Navadweep. His friendship with scholars like Pandit Ramlochan, Radha Krishna Sharma and Tarakapanchanan helped him acquire insights into Sanskrit language and literature. The last edited his Digest of the Hindu Law.

Sir William was the first to realise the importance of translating Indian classics to effectively interpret India to the West. A trained jurist and an ardent lover of India, he wanted to translate the Institutes of Manu and when an opportunity presented itself he took over the translation from Wilkins who started the work at first. Sir William's translation of Sakuntala gave the German poet Goethe an insight into Kalidasa's grandeur and the excellence of Indian aesthetic exuberance. Other translations of the great orientalist included the renderings of Vishnu Sharma's Hitopsadesam and Jayadeva's blissful Gita Govinda.

Today we remember Sir William Jones (popularly known in England as Asiatic Jones) as a distinguished orientalist, Indologist and philologist. He died early at the age of forty-eight in 1794. In Telugu we have a saying that it is better to live the span of a swan for six months than to live long like the crow for very long. Very great men died early their short span of life notwithstanding they left behind monumental works.

Note: We stand beholden to Smt. Lalitha Krishna Sastry for having published in 1998 her late husband's doctoral dissertation, which earned him a doctoral degree, more than four decades ago. But for her forward-looking gesture, Sir William Jones: Interpreter of India to the West would have been gathering further dust in the morgue of unpublished dissertations in the Andhra University Library.


More by :  Dr. Rama Rao Vadapalli V.B.

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Views: 3648      Comments: 1

Comment James Mill never came to India , so far I know .

Rajesh Sanghai
05-Aug-2023 01:20 AM

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